[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was an incredibly strong year for music, both from young hopefuls and from established acts. As always, compiling a list of only ten albums was like trying to choose between which limb you’d rather lose. However, the fact that it is a such struggle to whittle the year’s output down to ten albums is always a good sign that there’s plenty of new music to get excited about, and long may it continue that way. So, let’s kick this year off right…

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10. Jack White – Lazaretto
And in the blue corner, the genre-bending third man, weighing in at #10 this year is Jack White, whose Lazaretto came out swinging this summer. No other artist these days is so evidently firing on all cylinders, buzzing off their own momentum, but makes it look so infuriatingly effortless.

2014 Banner 99. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
Full of high drama, junkyard romance and dreamy noir, Milk For Your Motors has been successfully fulfilling my Nick Cave fix this year. Spangled guitars twinkle over shuffling percussion and carny organs, while Ray’s honeyed vocals drift effortlessly through this shadowy landscape. Simply gothic-tinged pop goodness.

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8. The Rails – Fair Warning
The debut offering from a married folk-rock duo with a fine pedigree. Their tales have an inherent universality and a healthy respect for folk tradition, but also display their confidence and capability to carve out a plot for themselves that feels totally contemporary. Fair Warning rambles, gambles, rocks and rolls.

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7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
I’ve always been a bit on/off with Van Etten, but this is her first record where she seems completely comfortable in her own skin, delivering yearning, accomplished rock songs that reflect a boldness which was shaky before. Replete with panoramic self-expression without resorting to navel-gazing, Are We There is acerbic, cathartic and triumphant.

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6. Interpol – El Pintor
The release of anything by NY’s best dressed is cause for celebration, but what I didn’t expect was an album that brimmed with the dark, beguiling magic that characterised their debut. Bassist Carlos D may be errant, but the remaining trio have created a surging album of nocturnal alt. rock that is quintessential Interpol.

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5. Smoke Fairies – Smoke Fairies
Beautiful, dreamy pop music of many depths that fuses elements of gentle folk, moody rock and soaring electro-pop with some of the most mesmerising vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while. The Chichester duo have been doing this for years, but somehow they always slipped through my grip until last year. Still, better late than never, especially with such masterfully built melodies as Eclipse Them All and Your Own Silent Movie, an uplifting anthem for those who live their lives soundtracked by music. What can I say? I relate.

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4. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Emma Jean
I saw Fields, now 63, with The Expressions support Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings (who also released a stonking, hip-shaking record last year) in the autumn and for sheer energy and showmanship he blew every other act I saw in 2014 out of the water. That roaring energy is palpable on Emma Jean, which manages to take different facets of James Brown funk, Memphis soul and old-school R&B, and pull it off with inspiration and flair. Love, loss, life and struggle; it’s all here in spades and it never sounded so good.

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3. The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
For my money, The Roots are one of the most intelligent and significant forces in music today, and the only band that can allude to both Nas and Dylan Thomas in the space of two lines (Never). Making uncompromising use of samples and jazzy countermelodies, …atysyc is a concretely dense album full of discomfort that satirises and problematises the ubiquity of violence in society and the media. It’s exactly what hip-hop should be: a giant melting pot where disparate elements combine to reflect something of our nature. If you haven’t read Questlove’s article series How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, I really encourage you to do so.

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2. Mirel Wagner – When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day
The second LP from the Finnish songwriter (and her first for Sub-Pop) is an elemental, earthy affair, which echoes John Steinbeck for the stark vividness of imagery and the dustbowl ghosts that seem to linger around these ballads. Her lyrics are heavy on blood lines and the tracks we make on the earth which holds our bones, while the plaintive brushing of acoustic strings seem to breathe the dust of ages. But, what resonates most is Wagner’s voice: Commanding, almost ancient in its unflinching directness, and laden with undeniable truths that bury themselves deep. Utter ragged glory and a masterpiece of songwriting.

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1. Warpaint – Warpaint
Sounding like Laurel Canyon via The Twilight Zone, Warpaint’s crepuscular sophomore effort is darker and more seductive than its predecessor (something I didn’t think possible) and was my go-to soundtrack last year. Absorbing minimalist electronics and the vast deserts of Joshua Tree into their idiosyncratic, jam-oriented formula, Warpaint have created a brooding, delicious treat that taps into something thrumming in the subconscious. No other album last year exerted the same enigmatic pull on me despite being on constant rotation. If anything, it becomes more mysterious the more I think I know it and for that reason, it takes my album of the year.

So long, 2014, and thanks for all the great music.

What were your favourite music moments of 2014? Let me know in the comments below.

– Originally appeared on Hercules Moment.

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[Cheap and Cheerful]: Cody ChesnuTT

cody-chesnutt-lo-res-press-photo-2“Know how to stay fly in the hardest times, But what we don’t know is that ain’t gonna be enough”

What’s better than discovering great music? Discovering it’s free as well. Cheap and Cheerful intermittently throws free downloads your way for continued listening pleasure that doesn’t break the bank.

Seen most recently supporting neo-soul Q.U.E.E.N. and fellow Atlantan Janelle Monae on tour, Cody ChesnuTT has also been carving out his own distinctive brand of rock ‘n’ soul in recent years. After splitting from L.A. rockers The Crosswalk in 2000, ChesnuTT set up a makeshift studio in his bedroom and sequestered himself for several months with a handful of instruments and a 4-track recorder to produce 2002’s critically acclaimed double album The Headphone Masterpiece. A genre hopping gumbo indebted to a love of rock ‘n’ roll, The Headphone Masterpiece turned a lot of heads with its prodigious musicality and lo-fi aesthetic, landing ChesnuTT on tours with Erykah Badu and The Roots. A subsequent guest slot on The Roots’s Phrenology for their cover of ChesnuTT’s ‘The Seed’, an appearance in Dave Chapelle’s Block Party and electrifying live performances only added to his growing cult status, yet ChesnuTT would not put out his second full-length album for another ten years. Following a quiet period of family life and reflection, punctuated by the release of Black Skin No Value EP in 2010, ChesnuTT returned with the smoking hot Landing On A Hundred in 2012. True to his bedroom basics roots, ChesnuTT has now chosen to make the Kickstarter funded album available for free over at Noisetrade, parcelled up with guest remixes and juicy outtakes from recording sessions at Memphis’s Royal Studios.

Like its predecessor, Landing On A Hundred covers a wide range of musical flavours and life issues, from socially conscious jams like ‘Under the Spell of the Handout’s honky-tonk funk and the gospel redemption of ‘Everybody’s Brother’, to ‘That’s Still Mama’s inner city holler and the sweet Sam Cooke-isms of ‘Love Is More Than a Wedding Day’. Meanwhile, the B-sides and remixes reveal even further scope and depth. The softly caressing lullaby of ‘Listen’ is counterpointed by country-blues stomper ‘Gunpowder On The Letter’, featuring searing leads from Gary Clark Jr., while in the hands of The Roots drummer and frontman Questlove ‘What Kind Of Cool’s shuffling beat is slowed to a soporific haze and an Eddie Hazel-worthy fuzzed-up solo leads out of the fog. Make no mistake, it’s a headphone masterpiece worth checking out

Landing On A Hundred is out now through Vibration Vineyard/One Little Indian and is available for free download here. Cody ChesnuTT is currently on a European tour, find dates here.

[Sneak Peek]: Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

tumblr_mo8cur8zrs1qb2mk2o1_500“Keep a red flag flying, keep a blue flag as well / And a white flag in case it all goes to hell.”

A friendship born on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where The Roots have served as Fallon’s house band since the show’s premiere in 2009, Elvis Costello and Questlove (The Roots’s drummer and co-frontman) are set to release their full-length collaborative LP, Wise Up Ghost, tomorrow. The odd-couple, much? Probably, but looking at their respective career trajectories, Elvis Costello and Questlove have a lot in common. Both have been slow-burners and neither have shied away from making unpredictable career moves or bothered making distinctions between what their music should or should not be about. Also, neither have qualms about letting their social opinions known on record: The Roots have recorded challenging albums commenting on social inequality and dissatisfaction in America on albums such as Things Fall Apart and Rising Down, while Costello’s protests range from the furious (‘Radio Radio’, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’) to the beaten down (‘Shipbuilding’). It is fitting then, that some songs on Wise Up Ghost grew out of reworking some of Costello’s angriest songs (‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ came from ‘Pills and Soap’) and that ‘Walk Us Uptown’ should be an equal meeting of Costello’s  admonishments and Questlove’s musical sensibilities.

The album’s cover art being presented in the distinctive style of the old City Lights pocket poetry volumes is not fanciful, as ‘Walk Us Uptown’ very much has the feel of a modern beat poem. The traditional jazz accompaniment has moved on to encompass hip-hop and rock and roll and it feels like natural continuation of where Gil Scott-Heron left off with his final volume, I’m New Here. Jarring samples and punk staccato guitar punctuate the mix, while Questlove’s drumming is busy yet downplayed. Rather than a lively beat it is a monotonous shuffle, simmering with the same malice as the beat on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’. This sense of unease is heightened by the edgy piano chords which permeate the track and the sound of a distant train fading in and out. Meanwhile, the world view of ‘Walk Us Uptown’ remains as bleak and apocalyptic as anything Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka saw, full of degradation and barely suppressed fury. Costello has been long recognised as a wordsmith and here he sounds like a man reading out newspaper headlines, an endless litany of frustration and bile which is broken only occasionally by the refrain “Will you walk us uptown?”, which sounds more like a demand than a question.

This is anti-easy-listening music. Disguised behind ‘Walk Us Uptown’s catchy and listenable veneer, lies a challenging and troubling core, which Ben Greenman articulates when musing on Wise Up Ghost‘s title in his ambitious introduction to the album: “Often, [ghosts] are spirits left behind because they failed to demonstrate the appropriate acumen in life. Are we now, as a species, risking this kind of nightmare? Can we learn enough to prevent a purgatorial future?”. This is a tall order to fill, but, like the best of any art form, ‘Walk Us Uptown’ does not present answers. Rather it provokes questions in the consumer and, hopefully, we may derive some answers for ourselves.

Wise Up Ghost is available in record stores tomorrow through Blue Note Records.